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The Barnstormer and the Lady: Aviation Legends Walter and Olive Ann Beech
This remarkable biography of Walter and Olive Ann Beech virtually spans the entire history of American aviation. Written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Dennis Farney, The Barnstormer and the Lady: Aviation Legends Walter and Olive Ann Beech begins in an era when pilots still wore scarves and leather helmets and to fly was, quite literally, to defy death. It ends with aviation as a multibillion-dollar industry.
Aristocrats of the Air
Theirs was a marriage of opposites. Walter, a charming rascal and hard-living barnstormer. Olive Ann, a small-town Kansas girl who hid her shyness behind an imperious manner and backbone of steel. Their lives intersected with the giants of aviation: Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Bill Lear and many others. Their customers ranged from Arthur Godfrey to Lyndon B. Johnson, from Hollywood stars to Pentagon generals. Their company did much to transform Wichita, Kansas, from a dusty cow town to today’s “Aircraft Capital of the World.”
Both Walter and Olive Ann received aviation’s highest honors, including induction into the Aviation Hall of Fame. The only other couple in the hall: Charles and Anne Lindbergh.
The First Beechcraft
In the 1920s, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman and Clyde Cessna launched Travel Air – and collaboratively made it the major aircraft manufacturer of its day. Then came the Great Depression. In 1932 Walter and his bride Olive Ann together forged a new dream: Beech Aircraft Corp. (now Hawker Beechcraft).
They guided their company to fame and fortune and quickly realized their vision of a high-performance luxury biplane with the iconic Model 17 Staggerwing. It was pure grace in motion, achieving speeds beyond other single-engine aircraft.
To the Stars Through Difficulty
Illness hospitalized Walter for a year in 1940, leaving Olive Ann to guide wartime expansion. Walter never regained full health and died of a heart attack in 1950. Fortunately, the company was in supremely capable hands. Olive Ann served as chairman and president until 1968 and as chairman until 1982.
Olive Ann was respected and admired for her vision and business acumen. Still, she was a woman in a man’s world, one of the very first females in American history to lead a major corporation. When male underlings attempted a corporate coup, she crushed it. When a big Eastern bank disrespected her, she dumped it. Admirers and detractors alike called this indomitable, elegantly dressed woman “The Queen.” They also acknowledged her as “The First Lady of Aviation.”
A Lasting Legacy
Over its long history, in peace and in war, Beech Aircraft built more than 50,000 airplanes. Many are still flying today.
- The iconic Beech Staggerwing, muscular and virtually handcrafted, has been voted the most beautiful airplane ever built.
- An estimated 90 percent of World War II’s 45,000 U.S. Army Air Forces bombardiers trained on the Model 18 Twin Beech (with versions including the C-45 Expeditor, AT-7 Navigator and more).
- After the war, the couple introduced the Model 35 V-tail Bonanza, one of the most popular and easily recognized personal aircraft of all time. The continually updated Beech Bonanza continues in strong demand – enjoying the longest production run of any airplane in general aviation history.
“It was my first experience with a woman who was running a high-powered company. To me, that was something. That was high class.”
– Bob Dole, former U.S. senator from Kansas and 1996 Republican nominee for president,
talking about his first meeting with Olive Ann Beech.